There is an ongoing debate in the media about how to deal with outlandish false claims that come from the political fringe. Some argue that you only amplify ridiculous views by refuting them, allowing them to reach a bigger audience. But ignoring extremism is also dangerous.

Virus Outbreak Vaccine Protest

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is broadcast on a large screen as he speaks at an anti-vaccine rally Sunday in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Associated Press/Patrick Semansky

On Sunday, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine extremist, told a small crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that the public health interventions being used to fight COVID were more oppressive than the genocide perpetrated by Nazis.

“Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland, you could hide in the attic like Anne Frank did,” Kennedy told the crowd. “Today the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run, none of us can hide.”

Coming from a member of a famous political family, the words of President John F. Kennedy’s nephew were reported internationally and quickly condemned as blatant political opportunism. According to the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, they were “a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decay.”

This is not the first time Kennedy has used the specter of the Holocaust to fight vaccines, and he’s not the only one to do so.

It has become popular on the far right to claim that pandemic public health measures are as bad as or worse than the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany.

Advertisement

Speakers absurdly compare supermarket mask policies or vaccine requirements for people who work in health care settings with the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, along with millions more Slavs, Roma, gay people, communists and other “undesirables.”

This was on display right here in Maine last summer, when speakers at a rally against Gov. Mills’ health care worker vaccine requirement compared themselves to anti-Nazi resisters.

Assistant House Republican Leader Joel Stetkis offered a crude parody of “First They Came,” a famous Holocaust poem by theologian Martin Niemöller.

“They came after my firearm, but I didn’t own a firearm, so I did nothing,” the Canaan lawmaker recited. “Then they came after my job …”

The rhetoric from state Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, was even more blunt. She made the bizarre claim that officials who prohibit unvaccinated people from working with the sick would be violating the postwar Nuremberg Code and could be executed under international law.

“Do I need to remind you of the late 1930s and into the 40s in Germany. And the experiments with Josef Mengele?” Sampson said. “And what came out of that? The Nuremberg Code … Informed consent is at the top and violating that is punishable by death.”

Sampson doesn’t know what she’s talking about. We have had vaccine mandate laws in this country for more than a century and no official has ever been charged with a crime, let alone hanged for implementing them. But it’s not enough to say that these people are bad at history or that they insult the memory of the millions who died.

These extremists are nurturing a sense of victimhood that can galvanize a group and prepare it for action. The leaders may think that they are using metaphors, but who can say when the violent rhetoric turns to real violence?

What we should have learned on Jan. 6, 2021, is that this is not normal political debate. Whether it comes from Republican state legislators or a Democratic celebrity, we need to take it seriously and literally.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.